When you’re blogging (or posting on social media at all) about your family and motherhood, there’s a really delicate line to balance between painting life as nothing but roses and sunshine, and painting life as nothing but sleepless nights and regrettable life decisions.
I try to walk that line by simply posting honestly about it all. The good, the bad, and the ugly.
Today’s story is about the ugly.
I’ve been candid about my mental health struggles following Luella’s birth. Somewhere around her 4th or 5th day of life (it’s all a bit of a blur!) a Psychiatrist prescribed a low dose of Zoloft, an anti-depressant (SSRI) for me. Things got better, but I didn’t feel truly normal until a few months later when my GP recommended bumping my dosage up to 50 mg, and then suddenly I felt like the clouds had lifted.
Prior to that I felt like I was only able to feel happiness in an abstract way. Like, I’d be out at the beach with my husband and newborn who’d just learned to start giggling at her daddy’s silly faces and I’d think “this is a happy moment, I should be feeling happy.” But I didn’t actually feel it.
Once my medication was adjusted though, suddenly I began seeing my daughter in a new way, marvelling at the world through her eyes and finally feeling that overwhelming sense of joy that for months I knew I should be feeling.
And that joyous feeling lasted into the toddler years, though of course there’s been anger, frustration, tears, and fights. It’s just that I could now handle those emotions without them crippling me. I could calm down, be more patient and a sympathetic parent.
Then in November, Luella was just over 2, and I decided to go off my medication. There were a few reasons. I wasn’t keen on being medicated forever and things were going smooth enough that it seemed like I could get by, and though we weren’t ready to start trying for a second baby, I knew it was on the horizon and I really wanted to be off my medication when we conceived.
I had read A LOT of conflicting advice on SSRI use during pregnancy. There was some, but not very conclusive evidence linking an increased risk of birth defects, but what worried me the most was the suggestion that the newborn, upon birth could begin to go through withdrawal.
And let me tell you, withdrawal was NOT PRETTY.
Even though I weaned off my dosage, once I went from a tiny amount to nothing it hit me like a ton of bricks. It was as if all the overwhelming emotions that I’d been blocking out for the past two years suddenly came and hit me all at once. I found myself crying for no reason all day long. I’d go into my bedroom and scream into pillows to try to get rid of rage that would just build up in me. My sleeping became erratic and it took every ounce of energy to hold it together to the outside world.
Luckily the withdrawal didn’t last too long and by the end of the year I was coping much better. It was like I had to re-learn how to process my feelings. So two months later when we decided to start trying to conceive, I felt like I was in a good place to do it.
We unexpectedly got lucky on our first go. I’d figured we’d have at least a few months of trying at my age. When I started feeling very anxious about the positive test, I attributed it to the suddenness of it. I also had the pregnancy confirmed by a doctor four days before our long trip overseas and felt a bit overwhelmed by preparing for it. Should we tell Luella before we go? Do we tell my family and friends while we’re there? Am I going to get sick on the airplanes?
And the truth was, our holiday only increased my anxiety. Luella does great on planes, but we both had a hard time adjusting to the jet lag. She ended up being awake for long stretches at night and then if I was lucky I’d get a few hours sleep in the early morning hours. I just couldn’t seem to fall asleep. Anytime I’d start to feel myself dozing off, this adrenaline rush would suddenly kick in.
I was scrambling to find natural sleep remedies – B vitamins, lavender oil, white noise apps on my phone. Thankfully our sleep seemed to re-set when we got to New York for whatever reason, but my anxiety was still really rough. I was feeling that “abstract happiness” again, where I’d think, “I should be feeling happy right now, watching Luella’s excitement to see the Statue of Liberty.” But I felt more like I was just faking it. By the time we hit Portland, my hormones started going crazy and the mood swings began to set in.
There were more than a few times I pleaded to Jim that we end the trip early and just come home. I felt like I was being a terrible parent. Luella had a particularly rough tantrum at a museum one day, and even though it was obviously due to overtiredness, I just couldn’t handle it. I found myself yelling and saying and doing all the things that I knew were not helping the situation in any way. It was like all my patience had just disappeared.
Looking back, I was terrified. Seriously terrified of having two kids. So when Lu cried for me to pick her up, I’d think “How am I going to pick her up when I’m 8 months pregnant? Or with a crying newborn in my arms? She needs to learn to be self-sufficient. Right now!”
My brain would just spiral like that constantly. I had hoped things would get better when we returned home, but I think I just hit a breaking point.
On our first day home we were having a chilled out day. It was late afternoon and I was just sitting with Luella reading books when this feeling came over me out of nowhere. A feeling of sudden dread. And my heart began racing, and I was having a hard time breathing. I called Jim in and tried to explain what was happening. He asked, “like a panic attack, but you’re not actually panicking?”
That was exactly it. I went to lie down and it got worse and I found myself suddenly sobbing uncontrollably. Jim hooked Luella up with some Play School episodes and helped me eventually calm down.
The next few days were a bit blurry. Luella was waking up around 3:30 every day and having a hard time adjusting to the jet lag and the lack of sleep combined with pregnancy exhaustion was not helping me. My panic attacks continued, sometimes multiple times a day.
I was scared. Was this how I was going to spend the remainder of my pregnancy? How on earth was I going to make it through? Reading more about antenatal mental health issues, I learned that it was extremely common for women with previous anxiety issues to relapse during pregnancy. I began to feel desperate to talk to someone but I didn’t know who.
We hadn’t decided for sure on the home birth yet and I hadn’t booked into RPA as a back-up, so none of their resources could help me. The GP who had been overseeing my medication had unexpectedly moved to Canberra right around the time I went off it. I saw a different GP at the same practice to confirm my pregnancy but she was a very bad fit for me. She was very dismissive of my mental health issues, recommended a number of expensive and completely unnecessary tests for me, and tried to talk me out of a home birth in favour of seeing a private OB. I vowed never to go back to her. And this seemed a bit too serious to just rock up to a random medical centre and see the first available doctor.
The only person I could think of to talk to was Sheryl, the midwife I was scheduled to interview later in the week. I sent her an email in desperation, explaining what was going on. Within 15 minutes I had a warm and concerned, but not freaked out response from her.
I learned that she actually had worked for years as the perinatal mental health consultant for a major Sydney hospital. Her advice was straight forward: the best thing you can do for yourself and your baby is to go back on your medication as soon as possible.
I explained my fears about putting a newborn baby through withdrawal and she said with my low dosage, that risk would be extremely low. The anxiety I was experiencing was a much bigger threat to us both.
At that point I said, you know, if your crunchy homebirth midwife is telling you it’s safe to take your meds, you should probably do it.
The next day I made an appointment at a nearby medical centre and got my prescription re-filled straight away. Sheryl checked in with me via email over the next few days to make sure I was doing ok. Just knowing that someone had my back and that I was on my way back to good mental health made a huge difference and the panic attacks stopped.
That was almost six weeks ago now, and I am beyond thankful for the help Sheryl gave me and the ability to actually be enjoying this pregnancy and not scared shitless about it. I knew from those email conversations that we would end up hiring Sheryl. She got me straight away and helped me in a way that never felt condescending.
I’ve gone back to being the mother I know I am meant to be. My sleep has dramatically improved and I’m using diet and exercise to help my mood as well. I have a renewed focus on bringing positive energy to this pregnancy.
I wish I hadn’t gone through all of that to get to this point, but all that matters is that I’m here now.